FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates emerged from meeting with several military families on Tuesday saying that he would do more to help keep together military parents who have been separated by deployments or assignments, and would ask the White House to provide more training to civilian teachers and counselors of military children.
“A woman and her husband, both in the military, out of the last six years have lived together for 10 months,” Gates said. “And that’s just not acceptable.”
As President Barack Obama addressed the nation’s schoolchildren, the White House also dispatched cabinet members for back-to-school events in their own respective communities. Gates met behind closed doors with the parents of nine military families at Fort Belvoir, a short drive along the Potomac River from the Pentagon.
The secretary said he would take back to the Cabinet the concerns he heard from parents: that too often they are forced to move their children to new schools, that parents are deployed or assigned apart from each other, and that civilian school teachers are not prepared to deal with the unique stresses faced by military dependents.
“I think that we could use some real help from the White House and the Department of Education in terms of working with local school districts to get training for teachers and counselors who have significant numbers of military children in their schools,” said Gates.
Army Sgt. Laura Moore, 34, and her soldier-husband, Sgt. Michael Moore, 32, told Gates they could use better counseling from off-base teachers.
The parents of four, their eldest was a 14-year-old eighth grader when mom deployed to Iraq and dad was in Afghanistan. Teachers thought their son was a typical problem child.
“They didn’t realize the severity of his problems,” said Michael Moore. “DOD teachers would have probably noticed it.”
Of the 1.2 million military children, all but 85,000 attend schools outside the Defense Department system. And two-thirds of all military children are under age 11.
“One mom in there told me her kids had moved schools four times in the last two years,” Gates said.
The parents told Gates these problems are evident even in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, which has one of the nation’s largest and highest regarded school systems.
“More than a few of the parents in that meeting talked about teachers not keeping their personal opinions to themselves,” Gates said. “So you have a child whose parent is deployed and in danger, and at the same time having a teacher perhaps being critical of what they were doing, or the military and so on.”
Master Sgt. Lynette Streitfield, from Spokane, Wash., said that while she was deployed to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, her daughter, then a high school sophomore, had a health teacher spend an entire class railing against President George W. Bush and the war.
“My daughter’s grades, she floundered during her sophomore and junior years,” Streitfield said. “I just don’t think that they had the support element in the schools to help the kids deal with it, as well as, obviously, the teachers that ran amok with their rhetoric.”
Parents, including the Moores, also asked for more on-base schools.
“These parents would love to have schools on post,” Gates said. “Not only teachers and counselors who know exactly what they’re doing in dealing with these kids, but kids who are surrounded by peers who are going through the same thing they’re going through and can empathize, confidence in quality, no long bus rides. They were pretty heartfelt on that.”
For those in public schools, Gates said he anticipated California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger soon would sign a bill joining an interstate pact among schools that allows easier transfer of course credits and graduation requirements. Once that state joins, 81 percent of military kids will fall under the pact, he said, easing at least one burden of military life.